There is plenty to observe in Rihanna’s new topless cover shoot: her well-oiled torso, under-boob tattoo and barbell nipple piercing, for example. But I saw only one thing: the total irrelevance of Playboy magazine. That's because this sexy image appears on the cover of the French men's magazine Lui -- and, to be clear, this isn't for lack of Playboy trying to get the singer in its pages.
When TMZ recently captured telephoto images of Rihanna shooting these risqué photos, the buzz was that she was to appear in Playboy, which made me feel like I'd stepped through a time portal into the '90s. The presented evidence was that: 1) She was topless, 2) an assistant on the photo shoot was wearing a Playboy T-shirt, and 3) she was reportedly later seen wearing a Playboy jacket.
Posing for Playboy would practically be a humanitarian act on Rihanna's part. These days, the disintegrating brand is only a true career opportunity for un-hirable stars like Lindsay Lohan. In the age of ubiquitous hardcore porn and celebrity sex tapes, Playboy fails to register as shocking -- and yet it also fails to be subtly sexy or artistic. It's horrible at both extremes.
Rihanna is much better served taking her nude ambitions to a magazine that once featured English goddess Jane Birkin on the cover. Playboy says, "I've run out of ideas" or "I have a car payment due"; Rihanna's Lui shoot says, "I'm sexy and I'm sharing it as a gift to the world." As Rihanna herself said four years ago, "If I’m gonna take my clothes off, it has to be in a classy way." She said, "I wouldn’t take any money to do that." At that point, she had already been approached by Playboy, and guess what? She declined.
These days, it seems the magazine exists simply to offer loads of cash for legitimate celebrities to ignore. Playboy doesn’t make headlines by having big stars on the cover; it does it by being rejected by them.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Playboy is attempting to reinvent itself as a "licensing company." The brand and logo are applied to merchandise -- from energy drinks to cologne -- without Playboy having to front the money. "Licensing revenue increased to $62 million in the year ended last September, from $37 million in 2009, according to people familiar with the matter," said the Journal. This comes after Playboy went private and cut 75 percent of its staff in 2011. As Hugh Hefner told the New York Times Magazine in 2010, "To begin with, it was the magazine that carried the brand; now the brand carries the magazine." In fact, the Playboy bunny is "one of the most licensed trademarks of all time," according to MSN.
But what does that bow-tied bunny even mean anymore? Judging from the items being sold in Playboy's online store, like faux-vintage tees and gilded barware, it stands for sexual nostalgia for "Mad Men"-era hedonism. At least, that's where they're trying to take the brand. If you search Amazon for Playboy items, though, you find a trove of bunny-clad thongs, pink sleepwear and belly rings, which is to say that the brand persists as a form of aspirational sexiness for women. In the case of Rihanna's supposed Playboy jacket, I suppose it's something else entirely: irony.